Politics attracts weirdos. Sure, it also attracts plenty of earnest, responsible activists and public servants, but it brings in more than its share of fringe actors — if you’ve ever hung out with a Birther or a 9/11 Truther, you’ll know what I mean. And guess what: our brave new world of internet communications gives them a really big (potential) audience.
Prowling around on the ‘net a few days back, I saw a perfect example, an ad against Lamar Alexander running on Salon.com (a later example targeting Lisa Murkowski is to the right). On a Lefty-oriented site, I figured it was a liberal group using him as a bogeyman to raise money. I was wrong! Turns out it was for a hard-right anti-gay “organization” running a petition against Alexander for acquiescing in allowing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act out of Senate committee*. Of course the bill’s doomed on the Senate floor, since Republicans would no doubt filibuster it out of existence, but that’s not enough for the grandly-titled “Public Advocate of the United States,” one Eugene Delgaudio of Loudon County, Virginia.
The petition language is completely over the top, referring to the bill as the “Gay Bill of Special Rights” and claiming that it will force churches to hire gays (note: religious institutions are exempt, and btw have you ever even MET a straight male church organist?). It also notes that “Stories are surfacing right now in Tennessee of Lamar Alexander’s connection to a radical pro-homosexual and anti-business group: Citizens for Responsible Energy (CRE).” Wow, that’s quite an issue combo — rainbow flag-painted windmills must be right around the corner! But this kind of stunt seems about right for Delgaudio, who once held a “man-donkey” wedding to illustrate the moral slippery slope down which marriage equality will send us sliding, no doubt into the very fires of Hell.
Of course, we’ve always had people like Delgaudio with us; when I worked for a state legislator in Texas 20 years ago, part of my job was intercepting his ilk before they took up much of my boss’s time. But the ease of online communications means that their shouting isn’t limited to the street corner — now they can put their messages anywhere they can afford to run them. And with online ads extremely cheap, particularly if you’re aiming for volume rather than quality placement (an anti-gay ad on Salon is not exactly targeted, unless the goal is to reach the political class), those messages can spread just about everywhere.
We’ve talked many times here about the internet’s ability to bring people with common interests together, even if they’re widely separated geographically. And, online channels are perfect for a small-but-vocal group to sound as though it’s far more popular than it actually is, something well-illustrated by Ron Paul’s supporters back in 2008. But in the case of these ads against Alexander and Murkowski, we’re basically talking about ONE GUY who’s built up enough of a fundraising apparatus to run list-building ads on major online publications. I wonder if he’ll turn to Facebook? Buying $20 a day of Facebook ads can yield millions of ad impressions in a very short time…if you don’t violate their content standards.
Regardless of what you think about Delgaudio’s cause (to me he seems to me like a small, sad man shouting at an evolving world to STOP!), we’ll see more like him. Just as online astroturfing can hide a corporate agenda behind a faux network of local activists, digital channels can let a small group — or a single loud voice — act like a substantial movement. A good thing? I say yes! I’m a free-speech purist, for one thing, but it’s also leading to far more citizen activism, which will really matter as more people focus their work locally. And voices that were once fringe can become mainstream fast, if they can convince enough people of the virtue of their cause. In the case of our new “Public Advocate” friend, the more exposure, the better — my guess is that he does more to discredit his cause than advance it.
*Disclaimer: I built a pro-ENDA website for a civil right client back in 2000…these fights don’t end quickly.